PIAA still on track for fall sports
An announcement by the PIAA’s Board of Directors on Wednesday that fall sports were still on track to begin as scheduled in August was the news many people wanted to hear.
Much could change between now and the official start date of Aug. 17 as the situation and circumstances surrounding the coronavirus pandemic evolves, but PIAA Executive Director Robert Lombardi was in no rush to make any decision on the status of the season should it need to be delayed.
“Not on July 15, there’s not a drop-dead date,” Lombardi said when asked if there was a time by which the board would need to decide. “With the climate we have now, we don’t feel we have to do that. But when that information comes forward, we would look at it.
“But if you’re asking me for a date, today I can’t give you one.”
While no decision has been made on what an alternative schedule would look like, Lombardi left the door open for all options.
“I think a lot of you may have seen an article with Pennsylvania Football News, and I think the question that Billy (Splain) posed to me was, ‘Would you hold as far as October?’ And I said sure, we would go week-to-week,” Lombardi said. “We could go to the first week of October. There’s a lot of things we’re willing to do. I think you heard loud and clear from the board, the philosophy is that we’re going to make our best efforts to get whatever we can, as much as we can, for every student athlete in the state so they can participate in athletics this school year.
“We want kids to be kids. We want them to get the experience of playing athletics. So we’re going to do whatever we can by working through the framework given from the governor, the Department of Education and the Department of Health to do that.”
Pennsylvania added 994 COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 97,665. Allegheny County saw an increase of 246, while Philadelphia reported 135 new cases.
But Lombardi has been encouraged by how school districts have handled the resumption of offseason activities and is confident in the health and safety plans each has had to put in place.
“We’re still on the timetable because we have not seen a large spike, or shutdown of our student athletes on their school campuses,” Lombardi said. “We have seen some pocketed things, but we believe most of our schools are doing an outstanding job with their health and safety programs, and are monitoring their student athletes, and we felt, on July 15, we still have time to make an analysis as we go forward,
“Therefore, you’ve seen the board discuss having another board meeting here toward the end of July (July 29). Obviously, that will be to review any changes that come forward, like one that came forward this afternoon, that was kind of a surprise, about limiting inside gatherings to 25 people. That certainly may have gotten people’s attention for indoor activities, but it’s not that you can’t host indoor activities. So we can still work with that, and I think our coaches can work with that and still get good out-of-season workouts for student athletes.”
As long as schools have the means, the fall sports season will proceed as scheduled.
“If they close down schools, I think that’s a no brainer,” Lombardi said when asked what would stop the season. “Absent closing schools, if we have the ability that we have now, we’re going to proceed and try to get as much as we can in. If the out-of-school programs are playing, we can’t we?
“Our coaches are trained. They’re educated. They have concussion, cardiac, backgrounds clearances. They’re safer than some of the people you may be putting your daughter in front of at a recreational program.”
If a shutdown were to come, it would likely be from the state, not the PIAA.
“We want kids to be kids. We want them to do what they like to do,” said Lombardi. “It’s important, and it’s important for us to be advocates for them.
“We would hope that the governor’s office, and the Department of Health and the Department of Education would look very close at the whole school environment so we don’t shutdown without giving everybody full consideration.”
On their own
The announcement by the PIAA also came on the same day that the PSAC decided to suspend fall sports for this year.
Lombardi made it clear the PIAA was not, and would not, be influenced by similar decisions.
“We are different than college athletics,” he said. “Student athletes at the collegiate level are not adolescents. They’re adults and they’re traveling from all over the country. And in some cases, with some sports … they may be coming from some places throughout the world, which I think had some college conferences concerned.
“And yes, our state is quite diverse – I think it’s almost 75 percent rural – and our board has said we’re willing to get as much as we possibly can where we can get it. So if one area of the state could possibly play 75 percent of a schedule and the other part of the state could only play 25 percent, the board is OK with that, because we want kids to get as much as they possibly can where they can.”
There will be no one size fits all plan for schools – or sports – this fall.
“And the questions that have to be discussed later are how are you going to look at postseason? Is it going to end at the (end) of the regular season? Is it going to end at the district level? Are you going to have regionals?” Lombardi said. “Those questions are questions to be answered in the future, the reason being we still have time to do that.
“We’re keeping this fluid because we’ve seen people step out in other states and put in plans and then get them blown up because of actions from other departments that they have no control over. Our government agencies right now, our Department of Health, our Department of Education, have the best information available, so we’ll follow their leads with it.”
Lombardi noted the importance of having all the district committees on board with having the season start on time as a primary factor for being able to move ahead as planned and a reason they are not operating similarly to other states.
“Those state associations are doing what their membership schools want,” Lombardi said of Maryland and New Jersey. “That’s what they want. Our folks don’t want that.
“People need to take a deep breath and give us the time to try to get this done. You see softball tournaments every weekend, lacrosse, field hockey, soccer, they’re all playing. Why do we have to shut down? They’re playing. And if we shut down, does that just promote out-of-school activities over in-school activities? When you win an AAU basketball championship, they’re not waiting for you in your community with a fire truck. But if you win a PIAA baseball championship, they might pick you up at the stadium in the truck and drive you home, because it’s important for communities, and it’s important for kids.”
New Jersey recently announced its fall sports season will begin in October.
Relating it to the stoppage from March, Lombardi noted the PIAA waited as long as possible before having to make a decision on the winter and spring seasons.
“I thought we held serve as long as we could,” he said. “We postponed because we were hoping we could get through something because we were anticipating coming back and finishing the winter, and then seeing where we could get with the spring. When the schools got shut down, our hand was forced. We didn’t have an opportunity to do anything.
“We were going to try to go until the end of the year to get something in, because we know it’s important for schools and their communities and ultimately the student athlete”
Lombardi addressed concerns regarding what would happen if a player were to test positive and what type of impact that would have on the team, and whether or not it could lead to a forfeit because of a possible quarantine.
“Initially, one student is not considered to be a breakout,” Lombardi said. “However, we have had some quality discussions about how the regular season would be different than the postseason, because in the postseason you’re under a timing restraint, so the answers may be different. Whereas in the regular season you could possibly even move the contest, postpone the contest, or even have it as a no contest.
“The answers on that are to be determined. We wanted to kick the tires on that, get our district people back to their committees and talk to their schools a little bit on what some of their feelings were before we came up with a statewide policy.”
Lombardi also said that part of the process moving forward is developing contingency plans should the season be altered.
“The dialogue we had around the table was let’s start looking at some doable alternate forms for postseason and those type of things and let’s take it slow and not get to a point where we’re just going to start on this date and come hell or highwater that’s what we’re going to do,” said Lombardi. “Because we think that’s dangerous. Every day changes so much. I still think we’re better July 15 than we were on June 15 because at that time we had maybe one school that opened their out of season workouts.
“We’re trying to grab as much of the gold as we can.”
Lombardi was noncommittal on the possibility of flipping the fall sports season with the spring sports season, as some college conferences have proposed.
“Our intent is the play fall as scheduled, even if it would end up in a shortened fashion or altered fashion,” he said. “Because the flipping of those sports, there’s a false narrative that the spring is going to be better than the fall, and there’s no guarantee of that. It’s also wrought with other concerns of overuse.
“Also, you have football being played in the spring and the chairman of the NFHS Sport Medicine Committee came out and said he would never recommend that, because it doesn’t give a student that finishes a season in early June and starts summer workouts in July enough time to have his body heal, especially if there is any type of trauma or injury.”
While unlikely, Lombardi wouldn’t rule it out.
“Could it come to that? Possibly,” he said. “But that’s well down the road. Today, we’re going to try to take the seasons in the order they come, and try to get as much as we can per season at this time. That’s the direction of the board.”
Lombardi pointed to the state track meet, which is held at Shippensburg University on Memorial Day weekend, as one event that would present logistical headaches.
“We need a place to house 2,600 athletes in dorms, and all colleges, at that time in November, are probably going to be in some type of session,” he said. “I’m not going to get into the ‘what if’ of it, because I think it’s dangerous.
“The last thing we need now is to perpetuate rumors that aren’t true. We’re trying to give people an experience that was taken away from them March 13. You know how gut-wrenching that was for kids. It was gut-wrenching for us just to sit there on the sidelines and watch them. But I can’t answer that at this time. When the time comes and that happens, I’ll give you an answer.
“But I think it’s one of those things that last resort is better than no resort.”
Lombardi said that if a school did not want to play a schedule, that would be its own individual decision.
“You’re not going to have pocketed decisions, I don’t believe,” Lombardi said. “Unless there’s some type of breakout or something that we’re not aware of at this time.
“Bur that’s a hypothetical that I can’t answer.”
Lombardi also dismissed any rumors that state playoffs have already been cancelled.
“It’s a little premature in July to make a decision about December,” he said. “We are planning to have the postseason as we sit here today.”